NEW YORK -- One is an African-American. The other is an Israeli. They've faced each other across a net more than once, including Sunday in the U.S. Open, but more than rivals they are friends, linked by the discrimination they've faced.
Venus Williams you know. She's a Grand Slam champion, and she took a step toward another Slam by beating Shahar Peer, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, in the third round of the U.S. Open.
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Then again, maybe this is the Venus Williams you don't know.
This Venus Williams is the one who, in February 2009, came out in support of Peer when she, a full-time player on the Women's Tennis Association Tour, the WTA, was denied a visa by the United Arab Emirates to compete in Dubai.
This Venus Williams is the one who, acknowledging it was too late for her to withdraw from the event, won it and in her acceptance speech mentioned Peer.
This Venus Williams is the one who, after Sunday's win, spoke from the heart of the reasons she and Peer have more in common than just hitting forehands and backhands.
"I think just because of my history, too, as the African-American," Williams said.
She is 30 now and is less hesitant than she once might have been to stand up and be outspoken.
"You know," said Venus, "my parents came from the South in the '40s and '50s, and it [the way they were treated there] was an outrage, really."
|Venus Williams won a match, but something else was on her mind afterward. (AP)|
"Are you serious?" she asked rhetorically. "Can you really exclude someone? This is professional tennis 2010. We're all athletes here. We're not politicians or anything like that. So, really, the feeling inside of me was just one of almost rage and discontent. Like, is this for real?”
"Unfortunately, the first year (2009) the draw had already started. No one knew (about the UAE refusing to give Peer entry) until things had started. But the next year (2010) things went different. I think in that way we do relate because, unfortunately, the world is what is now."
Peer was 48th in the rankings in 2009. Now she's 19th. She had her chances against Venus on Sunday, but that's always the story, isn't it? The great ones find a way, and Venus, with her five Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and former No. 1 ranking, is a great one.
Especially to Peer, in more ways than the obvious.
"She was always supportive of me," said Peer, appreciative of how Venus, of all the women players, said in effect to the UAE, "Everybody plays or nobody plays."
"She was always on my side," Peer said. "Doesn't matter if it was this year or the year before when I didn't get the visa. She stood up in that final and spoke for me. Also, this year she was very kind. We play on an outside court. She was very humble, so I think she's a very ... it's hard for me to say in English. But she was always very supportive. She understands what I feel."
Other women players expressed their displeasure with the action by the Arab nation, but only Williams, and from the men's tour, another American, Andy Roddick -- there's also a men's event in Dubai -- were willing to withdraw.
Peer said this year she was treated beautifully by tournament organizers, a step forward in international relations, perhaps.
Since Venus came forward, she and Peer have played five times, including at this Open. "Yeah," said Williams, "it is funny. We play a lot of matches at big events."
And Venus wins them all. She's 6-0 against Peer, including a victory back in 2007, before the Dubai controversy surfaced.
"She's always a good player," said Peer, who along with Dudi Sela was one of two Israelis in this Open. "It was difficult to play today because of the wind. We both had a lot of errors. But she's always there. She has a big serve. I think she serves very well in the important points. Especially in the tiebreak. She knows what she's doing."
That statement would apply to Venus' approach to life other than tennis. Athletes are sometimes too conscious of upsetting sponsors or endorsers to make a political statement. Michael Jordan, when asked why he didn't speak out for a candidate, famously replied, "Republicans buy shoes, too."
Venus Williams wasn't buying the status quo.
"I think," Williams explained, "as professional athletes, in a way we're ambassadors, almost, for peace because sport brings everyone together. It was really a disappointment (that Peer wasn't allowed to play last year). It was good she was able to this year."
She was able because Venus Williams was capable. There's a champion by any definition.